July 9, 2012
Ruben Quesada describes the last photograph of his parents by beginning—
Tortillas clap against floured palms,
steaming bowls of avena, frijoles
black as the rumbling sky
Which is also to say, Quesada has taken the advice so many of us have heard time and time again, and too often ignored: begin with the action. After reading Quesada’s first full-length collection, Next Extinct Mammal, I am not surprised D.A. Powell points out that “like Whitman, Quesada is a poet of motion.” And it is apt that I am writing this on May 31, Whitman’s birthday, in the sunny afternoon when I find myself thinking that Quesada is the poet Whitman could have only dreamed of in the most pleasant of dreams.
Next Extinct Mammal is a collection of movement, yes, but one of exquisitely intimate movement. Here we get to know the characters in the world of Quesada, a Los Angeles native and first-generation Costa Rican American. These people, like the forms the poems take as their lacquered shells, vary widely. They are the godmother: “The alcoholic manicurist / with bright pink fingernails / filed into sharp points / was our next-door neighbor, / and my godmother.” Or Margarita, who works in California’s Diamond Creek Vineyards, and wears “a second-hand bra—threadbare, wrinkled like / the corners of her eyes.” Or Quesada’s mother, who stands “on production / line mouthing prayers for prosperity / and health in a room of air / compressors.”
From poem to poem, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the women Quesada first loved (lest we forget that close attention, intimacy again, is, indeed, a form of love; perhaps, in fact, love’s essential poetic representation). These are women beautifully, painstakingly, described. As a fellow member of the tribe, I can safely say that gay men have a unique vantage point within the world of women. And though the poems live more often, perhaps, in this world of écriture féminine, writing of the female body, some of my favorite moments come in the few poems about the love passing between men, whether that between father and son, friend, or lover, poems that cut quick and deep. Such as “Memories Are Made Like This,” which concludes with the stanza—
I’ve searched for the origin
of such intimacy and now
only the thinning smell
of sweat and pomade
makes itself known
to me. Neurons reconstructing
memories which stray
to the heart—that bloody mass
I wish would stop flexing—
just long enough to see
him one last time.
It is not reductive to call something beautiful; but what Quesada’s poetry does here, or one of the many things it does here, is remind us beauty is ever complex, and that an intelligent conversation about beauty is wrapped up in issues of gender, race, sex, class, aesthetics, and form. I would argue Next Extinct Mammal reflects this complexity, flexing the muscles of the lean poem, the prose poem, the narrative, the lyric, and always, the honest.
In “The Last Text,” Quesada explains, “and now I know / why I reread those words before I go to sleep…eyes scanning the distance between each word.” But as I have had the time to sit with Next Extinct Mammal; to travel to Los Angeles, Costa Rica, Texas, and many points in between or beyond; to meet a cast of fascinating characters spun into a impeccably woven narrative; and to learn from poems wrought by the careful hand of a wise craftsman, I can tell you the lines are befitting of Quesada’s Next Extinct Mammal as well, the lines I will reread again and again, my eyes scanning the distance between each word.
Ruben Quesada’s debut collection of poetry, Next Extinct Mammal, was published by Greenhouse Review Press in 2011. He received his M.F.A. degree in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside in 2007. He is completing a Ph.D. in English at Texas Tech University, where he teaches literature and creative writing. He currently serves as Editor at Codex Journal, Poetry Editor at The Cossack Review, and Contributor at Fringe Magazine. He will begin as Assistant Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University starting fall 2012.
Reviewed by D. Gilson
Next Extinct Mammal by Ruben Quesada
Greenhouse Review Press, 2011